Aliens vs. Predator: Extinction
The Aliens Vs Predator franchise machine has actually been rolling for quite some time. It started back in 1986 with the release of Aliens, a gung-ho acid-spitting sci-fi monster flick from James Cameron who was fresh from his success with The Terminator. It was a much delayed sequel to the original Alien movie filmed by Ridley Scott in the late 70s, but quite a fitting one. Ripley, the only survivor of the first film, is sent back to the planet that they got the Alien from before because they’ve lost contact with the outpost now situated there. When they arrive they find that the whole colony has been trashed, hundreds of aliens are running amok and naturally all hell breaks loose. Side stepping a lot of the horror the sequel decided to concentrate more on action and in the process introduced us to the Colonial Marines, who feature prominently in all Aliens vs. Predator video game incarnations. Various Alien movies followed but none captured the public imagination like Aliens, not yet anyway.
Conversely, Predator was, in all intense purposes, simply an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle from a year later. It tells the simple story of a group of specialist mercenaries getting picked off one by one in various gory ways by an unknown invisible warrior in the Cambodian jungle. Arnie’s obviously the last one standing and he finally defeats the Predator using guile and cunning and smearing himself with mud so the beast can’t see him, then beating the crap out of him. The sequel from 1990 transplanted the jungle location to Manhattan and lost the Schwarzenegger clout but even so the action quota was still high with the Predator now hunting the most violent criminals he could find. And some cops, of course.
They do share a lot of bizarre ties though, these two films. Arnie churned out action movies in the 80s, but his big break picture was definitely The Terminator. The film starred Arnie as the title role but was made by James Cameron, also starred Michael Biehn and had a cameo by Bill Paxton as a punk; all three of those names went on to work on Aliens while Arnie made Predator. Predator 2 also has links; Paxton played one of the lead detectives trying to track the Predator but instead gets slaughtered by him in a subway. He also played Hudson in Aliens, however, who suffers a similar fate at the hands of that film’s protagonists, making him the only actor ever to get killed by both an Alien and a Predator on the silver screen. How cool is that? Also, the eagle eyed of us also noticed that in the final sequence of Predator 2, where Danny Glover follows the creature to his trophy room, there is a large Alien skull proudly hung on the wall amongst a display of other skulls of previous Predator victims. A hint of things to come, maybe? Well, Twentieth Century Fox do own the rights to both franchises.
Dark Horse comics have been producing Aliens vs. Predator comics since the late 80s to much commercial and critical acclaim, and we’ve seen various tie-in dual franchise video games dating back as far as the Atari Jaguar, for crying out loud. But that’s not the half of it, the best news of all is the Aliens vs. Predator movie has finally been green-lighted with Paul Anderson on to direct. Yes, the guy who made Resident Evil I know, let’s hope this is better, after all this time.
So, now this multi-million dollar franchise whammy has finally made it’s way to our beloved consoles, what are we supposed to expect? Colonial Marines, the first-person shooter from Fox Interactive got canned recently after languishing in development hell for years, probably because they couldn’t get the frame rate high enough on the PS2 version, so I don’t think anyone was surprised when they announced that Extinction would be taking a different direction. Real-time strategy, on the other hand, is a rather dubious choice considering the fact that RTS games have never really settled well with the supposedly fickle console market. Traditionally they require a little more patience than we’re supposed to have, you see, which probably explains why Aliens vs. Predator: Extinction is the most dumbed down strategy title I’ve played in a long, long time.
The premise is simple enough. You first pick your troops – Alien, Colonial Marine or Predator – and guide your force through a seven level campaign which pits your chosen set against the other two. As you start each level you are handed an obligatory primary objective, some secondary objectives, a base camp of some sort or another and a handful of eager troops. The objectives obviously vary greatly depending on how far you’ve progressed through the game and your selected squad but, to tell you the truth, they’re not that big a deal and the ‘full-on conquest’ tactic is often your best bet. Marine missions, for example, often involve securing an area while Predator missions usually involve collecting a specific number of a specific type of enemy skull. Alien missions are thankfully more straight forward and usually just involve killing everything, but you could add the line ‘or just kill everything’ to the end of any objective and it’d be closer to the truth.
Collect 5 smart gunner skulls, or just kill everything – Predators
Secure the abandoned military compound, or just kill everything – Marines
Expand your hive and get a queen alien on board a drop ship, or sod that and just kill everything – Aliens
See what I mean? You also start with some cash or points to upgrade the troops you have or buy more, and this is where the differences between the three sides become the most pronounced. Let’s go through them one by one.
A Marine game would start you off with a CommTech trooper next to a broadcasting beacon, with perhaps a couple of troops already allocated for cover. The CommTech possesses two special abilities; he can contact the support ship to purchase more troops and is the only guy who has mechanical repair skills. This latter skill is used to repair atmosphere-processing units (or ‘atmos’) dotted around the map and the act of repairing these atmos earns your side some much need credits. In turn the CommTech spends these credits by ordering more troops and upgrading the ones he already has. Marine missions always involve fixing these atmos in one way or another, so you can always expect to face tough resistance from your aggressors while doing so. To protect this valuable player it’s best to surround him with soldiers, medics and synthetic humans, all of which are useful in their own way. Soldiers and medics speak for themselves, but synthetics are useful because they are equipped with those classic Aliens style motion detectors which make that cool sound. They are also are the only Marines strong enough to carry heavier items around, such as the mobile smart guns you can buy, for example. You’d also be advised to buy extra CommTechs in case you starting fella gets wasted, and several medics since I found they couldn’t heal themselves, only their colleagues. Note that the CommTechs are also the only ones who can heal synthetics (medics can only heal normal humans) which makes them doubly useful. Plus, if you run out of them you’ve instantly cut off your communication with the support vessel and thus you won’t be able to buy any more reinforcements, so you should generally make sure you always have a couple.
Predator games are a little more straight forward. Each level will start with a couple of Predators and a Predator shrine. The shrine is a well armed, mobile unit, which you use directly to order more Predators into the game and, again, upgrade the ones you already have. You can also stand your Predators next to the shrine and they can recharge their precious energy points. No individual Predators have game busting specials here, in fact the only real difference is in what type of fighting they specialise; some are simple brawlers with big claws, others have those cool shoulder mounted cannons like in the movie. They all do have two common abilities though; they can all heal themselves and can all turn on that Predator cloaking device. Both these actions drain energy points, which explains the need to stay close to your shrine a lot. This time the missions are more centred on the sport of killing so instead of credits, Predators earn kudos points for dishing out sweet death to your enemy. The points you earn are directly proportional to the quality of your kill (you don’t earn much for killing wild animals but would earn a lot for killing more dangerous foe like the Marines or Aliens) and you can earn extra points for ripping out their skulls as a trophy. With the acquired kudos you can then select your shrine and, like I said before, order more Predators and what have you.
The Aliens, in contrast, are unique in the sense that you don’t buy other troops, instead what happens is this. You’ll start with a queen Alien whose obvious special move is to lay eggs. As an egg hatches, a face-hugger pops out and you can then direct it towards the nearest host, in to which it will quickly plant an Alien egg then die. Seconds later, a baby alien pops out, and within seconds he’s grown into a full grown Alien the type of which depends directly on the species of the host. This is the Alien birth cycle and is central to their game. When an Alien kills something, you see, it doesn’t actually kill it, only incapacitates it. This allows him to pick up and drag the host back to the queen and her eggs to wait for impregnation. Since Aliens have no means of healing themselves, this activity is constant. In fact, that’s pretty much all you do; charge in to battle en mass, hope you don’t get completely wiped out, quickly drag the bodies of your foes back to the egg area and wait for your numbers to ‘naturally’ replenish. Err, and that’s about it for the Aliens.
In fact, when I described the Alien game as being about a constant process of charging in and then rushing back to base, that pretty much dictates the other games to; get as many troops as you can, pile in to combat, run away and heal or replenish numbers. The reasons for this are clearly apparent. Firstly, this RTS game feels really dumbed down and so the strategy element is severely lacking. The playing area is too small, even on the widest camera setting, and as soon as you scroll the screen forward and the enemy comes into view, you can both instantly see each other. Naturally, these means the troops usually open fire straight away (or get their claws out or whatever) thus sadly negating the whole concept of stealth. You can buy infra red goggles for you troops and what have you, but they seem strangely ineffectual. Admittedly, allocating troops into squads and assigning short cut buttons to control them as separate bunches is useful, perhaps send one group ahead to scout you’d think, but because the playing area is so small it’s often hard to keep track of where all the groups are. You can run squads into different areas of the map sure, and the game does inform you if any squad is getting attacked, but there’s no faster way to switch the playing area between groups. You end up constantly scrolling the cursor between different groups, which is a huge time waster when you’re trying to give out orders to separate squads. So, the instinct then is to bring all your troops together in view, but then the screen then gets pretty jam-packed. Also, big squads tend to target one enemy trooper at a time and you get the effect of a big swarm roaming around picking foes off one by one. It kind of reminds me of when young kids play football, all swarming after the ball. It’s a shame, you kind of get the feeling that you’ve missed the point somewhere, or maybe they have.
This leads me onto my second big gripe, the control system in general. It is fairly common knowledge that these kind of games always feel more comfortable with a mouse and keyboard set up. It’s the cursor business what does it; you’re never going to control a cursor as fast with a D-pad or analogue stick as you can with a mouse. Annoyingly, this means developers make RTS games for consoles much lighter affairs than those on the PC and as such they do loose a lot of their depth, as has happened here. The controls in Extinction are sluggish and awkward even by console standards, and this fundamentally floors the game.
Now, there are more things I could complain about. The music is sadly lacking in quality, the intro FMV is tired looking, there’s no discernible in game story to speak off, no multi-player options at all, relatively poor character graphics, etc, etc. It is easy to pick holes yes, there are many of them, but this game does have three things going for it. It has Aliens, Predators and Colonial Marines.
Aliens really did set the benchmark in sci-fi action and it’s just fantastic to see Marines charge into action, firing those cool pulse rifles and making those Aliens scream. It’s ace to see an egg hatch and a face-hugger go scuttling across the map towards it’s unwitting victim. It’s also great to see a Predator rip a skull out of the back of a corpse and let out that ear piercing war cry, or to home in with that cool shoulder mounted cannon thing that fires the three red laser beams. All these things are great, helped mainly by the faithful movie sound effects, and the spirit of the gung-ho late 80s just comes rushing back. That is, I admit, what drew me back to this game again and again for just one more go, even when I’d already decided it wasn’t very good.
That, therefore, is your benchmark. If you are really into RTS games and were looking forward to this baby, then get used to disappointment because it’s not that good. If, on the other hand, you’re a big Aliens and Predator fan like me, you might just forgive the game’s many, many misgivings and play it a lot longer than the middling score implies you should. You’ll at least get a good weekend’s play out of it and so maybe this one’s a bit more of a rental than a buyer. It’s quite fun in the short term but, as with any game, the more you play the more irritated you become with it’s failings. What Extinction really needed was a touch more big-budget razzamatazz, you know, a little bit of movie magic. Hell, maybe this sucker needed a cameo from Bill Paxton getting wasted for old times’ sake, who knows. All I can say is that this package comes up a short and as such should be approached with caution.